14 February 2021

Portable vs. Mobile

 Time for some philosophizin'

Does anyone make a 100 watt HF rig today that is specifically designed for portable work?  I'm not talking about a radio designed for mobile use, such as being installed in a car for use while driving. There's several of those on the market (Icom 7100, Yaesu FT-891). I'm talking about portable use - designed specifically to be taken to the field for use at a campsite, on a picnic, at Field Day, on a POTA activation, or an ARES, SHARES, RACES or MARS emergency field deployment. 

In thinking about it I'd have to say that, among the Big Three (Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu), the answer is no. Nobody makes a radio these days that is specifically designed for portable use. But first, let's spend a minute talking about what a portable rig should be. 

To begin with, a good portable rig needs to be, well, portable. Easy to carry and set up. No 20 lb. beasts. No multiple boxes, remote heads, cables and other gee-gaws needed to make it run right and do what it should. All in one container, and that container should be as light and compact as possible given the feature and design requirements. When set up, you shouldn't be looking at a table covered with cables, wires and external devices. Interfacing with a computer for rig control and digital modes should involve one cable, and one cable only.

On the must-have list:

  • Weather resistant (IPX5 or better)
  • Low current drain while on receive (< 1 amp, but less than 500 milliamps would be better)
  • High contrast screen for use in a variety of lighting conditions
  • All modes - SSB/AM/CW/Digital/FM
  • 80 - 6 meters transmit coverage
  • Continuous wide-band receive from 160 - 6 meters
  • Built-in soundcard interface for digital modes
  • USB interface for rig control, programming & digital mode operations
  • GPS & a GPS disciplined internal clock
  • Internal batteries for limited low power operations
  • The radio plus all accessories, cabling and documentation fit into a Pelican 1520 transport case (18" x 13" x 6.5"), or other equivalent sized protective case, with enough space left over for a small laptop or tablet
On the important to have list - features & items that improve field functionality and versatility but are not absolutely necessary:
  • 2 meter & 70 cm all-mode TX & RX
  • NOAA weather channel coverage
  • Bluetooth
  • Internal antenna tuner
  • Integrated carrying handle or rack handles (for example, the excellent carry handle that came with the Yaesu FT-897 or the rack handles that were available for the Icom IC-7200)
  • Backlit display

If the manufacturers really wanted to knock my socks off:

  • A true IP56 rating for for protection against water/dust intrusion, or MIL-STD 810 compliance
  • If VHF/UHF capable, a built-in AX.25 packet modem (for Winlink packet and APRS) communications)
  • HDMI or DVI output, plus companion digital display software for use on Windows & iOS
  • Front firing speaker
  • WiFi
Hey, we can dream, can't we?
  • Provision for an internal Automatic Link Establishment board
Many would say that we're getting perilously close to the new Icom IC-705 with this feature set, and I guess we are. But the 705 falls short in several critical areas - power output and IP rating. If Icom released a 50 watt version of the 705 that has an IPX5 rating I'd say we're near enough that we could call it a done deal. I know 50 watts isn't 100 watts, but in the real world there's very little difference between those two power levels when using resonant antennas. I could live with 50 watts.

Amateur Radio operators spend a lot of time gussying up mobile rigs to serve in the portable role. For example, on websites, blog posts and in YouTube videos you'll see the Yaesu FT-891 being used on park benches, in tents, and on tailgates all around the world. It's become a very popular portable rig, but it's popular only because there's nothing on the market that effectively fills the portable role. Unfortunately, for portable use the FT-891 requires a sound card interface and an external tuner. When the radio is fully set up for portable operations, particularly on digital modes, it's a rats nest of boxes, cables and power connectors.

Think I'm being melodramatic about the 'rats nest' issue?
This is the back end of a Yaesu FT-857 set up for portable ops - radio, tuner, soundcard interface, power, CAT control. 
The back end of the FT-891 looks almost identical when set up the same way.
We deserve better.

The one radio that I point to when talking about portable is the Yaesu FT-897. The Yaesu was perhaps the last 100 watt all-mode, all-band radio specifically designed for portable outdoor use. The FT-897 was a brilliant example of focused design. In fact, Yaesu was so fixated on the portable role that they incorporated some design features that sacrificed performance for low current draw. The radio offered rugged construction, on-board batteries, a cleverly designed and integrated 'sidecar' tuner, all bands, all modes, and an amazingly low 700 milliamp current draw on receive. There's a reason good used examples still command high prices. The FT-897 lacks a lot of the desired features I outline above - USB interface, internal GPS, Bluetooth & WiFi - simply because those features were not available when the radio was designed back around the turn of the century.

The Big Three need to take a look back to show the way forward. If you are going to develop an all-band, all-mode 100 watt rig for portable operations, study the example set by the FT-897 and bring that design philosophy forward to the 2020s. The market is waiting, cash in-hand.

I'll wrap this up by letting VE3TWM make the case better than I can.

W8BYH out

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